Magdalene asylum

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Magdalene Laundry in England, early twentieth century, from Frances Finnegan, Do Penance or Perish (Fig. 5) Congrave Press, 2001

Magdalene laundries, also known as Magdalene's asylums, were institutions from the 18th to the late 20th centuries ostensibly to house "fallen women", a term used to imply female sexual promiscuity or work in prostitution.

Many of these "laundries" were effectively operated as penitentiary work-houses. The strict regimes in the institutions were often more severe than those found in the prisons; this contradicted the perceived outlook that they were meant to treat the women as opposed to punishing them. "The heat was unbelievable. You couldn’t leave your station unless a bell went” (Reilly, 2013). Laundries such as this operated throughout Europe and North America for much of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, the last one closing in 1996.[1] The institutions were named after the Biblical figure Mary Magdalene, in earlier centuries characterised as a reformed prostitute.


The first Magdalene institution was founded in late 1758 in Whitechapel, England,[2] which led to the establishment of a similar institution in Ireland by 1767.[2] The first Magdalene asylum in the United States was the Magdalen Society of Philadelphia, founded in 1800; other North American cities, including New York, Boston, Chicago, and Toronto, quickly followed suit.[3][4] In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Magdalene asylums were common in several countries.[3] By 1900, there were more than 300 asylums in England and more than 20 in Scotland.[2][5]

Magdalene laundries by country[edit]


From the early 1890s to the 1960s, most Australian state capitals had a large convent which contained a commercial laundry where the work was done by mostly teenage girls who were placed in the convent, voluntarily or involuntarily, for reasons such as being destitute, uncontrollable, or picked up by the police.[6] According to James Franklin, the girls came from a variety of very disturbed and deprived backgrounds and were individually hard to deal with in many cases.[7]

Laundry work was regarded as suitable as it did not require much training nor substantial capital expense. Memories of conditions in the convent laundries by former inmates are consistently negative, detailing verbal abuse and very hard work. In accordance with the traditions of the nuns, much of the day proceeded in silence.[8] Like orphanages, they received almost no government funds. As in any underfunded institution, the food was described as bland. The nuns shared the conditions of the inmates, such as the bad food, hard work, the confinement and the long periods of silence. Education for residents was either of poor quality or lacking altogether. There was no physical contact on the part of the sisters, and no emotional contact in the sense of listening to the girls' own concerns.

Dangers included diseases and workplace accidents. In 1889 one of the sisters of Abbotsford lost her hand in an accident involving laundry machinery.[9] Conditions of manual work were harsh everywhere. The state-run Parramatta Girls Home, which also had a laundry, had similar harsh conditions but a worse record for assaults.[10]

The asylums were initially established as refuges, with the residents free to leave. In the early 1900s, they reluctantly began to accept court referrals.[9] "They took in girls whom no-one else wanted and who were forcibly confined, contrary to the wishes of both the girls and the nuns."[7] A 1954 report of the Sun Herald of a visit to the Ashfield laundry found 55 girls there involuntarily, 124 voluntary inmates including 65 mentally challenged adult women and about 30 who were originally there involuntarily but had stayed on, with dormitories described as seriously overcrowded.[11]


The Congregation of the Sisters of Misericorde was founded in 1848 by Marie-Rosalie Cadron-Jetté, a widow skilled as a midwife. Their network of asylums developed from their care of unmarried expectant mothers. The Misericordia Sisters endeavored to carry out their ministry discreetly, for the public was neither supportive of their cause nor charitable. The sisters were accused of "encouraging vice". The order was particularly sensitive to the social stigma attached to a woman who had borne an illegitimate child. The sisters perceived that, by precluding other employment, this often tended to force a woman into prostitution, and in some cases infanticide.[12] According to Sulpician Father Éric Sylvestre, ""When food was scarce, Rosalie would fast so that the moms could eat. She was fond of saying that 'Single mothers are the treasure of the house.'"[13]

"In receiving patients no discrimination is made in regard to religion, colour, or nationality. After their convalescence, those who desire to remain in the home are placed under a special sister and are known as 'Daughters of St. Margaret'. They follow a certain rule of life but contract no religious obligations. Should they desire to remain in the convent, after a period of probation, they are allowed to become Magdalens and eventually make the vows of the Magdalen institute."[14]

In 1858 Elizabeth Dunlop and others founded the Toronto Magdalene Laundries with the stated goal of "eliminating prostitution by rehabilitating prostitutes".[15]

England and Wales[edit]

The first Magdalen institution, Magdalen Hospital for the Reception of Penitent Prostitutes, was founded in late 1758 in London by Robert Dingley, a silk merchant, Jonas Hanway and John Fielding. The services and crafts that the women worked at helped provide support for the house. As it was agreed that the Magdalenes should receive some practical reward for their service, the women were given a small sum of money. Additional income was generated by promoting the house as a tourist attraction for the upper-classes. Horace Walpole, Fourth Earl of Orford, described staging one of these entertainments.[16] (This was in keeping with visits to Bethlem Royal Hospital and the Foundling Hospital.) Historians estimate that by the late 1800s there were more than 300 Magdalen Institutions in England alone.[17]

The writer Charles Dickens and the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts set up an alternative in 1846, thinking the Magdalen Hospitals too harsh. At Urania Cottage the young women were prepared for re-entry into mainstream society, or for emigration to the colonies.[18]

By the late 1800s many of the institutions had departed from the original model and resembled penitentiary work-houses. However, as these were viewed as commercial workshops and factories they were subject to labor regulations and inspections. The Factory Act (1901) limited working hours for girls of thirteen to eighteen years of age to twelve hours a day.[16] Magdalene laundries, in one format or another, were found in many of the major industrial centres of England and Wales, examples including the Convent of the Good Shepherd at Penylan, Cardiff. This was a common name for such instiutions.


Irish asylum, c. early twentieth century

The first laundry or asylum, a Church of Ireland run institution, Magdalen Asylum for Penitent Females, opened in Ireland on Leeson Street in Dublin in 1765, founded by Lady Arabella Denny. The last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996 in Waterford City in Ireland. This Building is now Waterford Institute of Technology. In Belfast, in Northern Ireland, the Church of Ireland-run Ulster Magdalene Asylum was founded in 1839, while parallel institutions were run by Catholics and Presbyterians.[19][20] “a mechanism that society, religious orders and the state came up with to try and get rid of people deemed not to conforming to the so-called… Irish identity” (Ferriter, 2013).The Irish government claimed that the State was not legally responsible for the abuse suffered by women and girls in the Magdalene Laundries.(Hibernian Law Journal)

The discovery in 1993 of a mass grave on the grounds of a former convent in Dublin led to media articles about the operations of the institutions, and ultimately to a call on the part of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child for a government inquiry.[21] A formal state apology was issued in 2013, and a €60 million compensation scheme was set up. The four religious institutes that ran the Irish asylums have not as yet contributed to compensate the survivors of abuse, despite demands from the Irish government, and the UN Committee Against Torture.[22] The sisters continue to care for more than 100 elderly Magdalene women who remain in their care.[23]

Senator Martin McAleese chaired an Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries. An Interim Report was released in October 2011.[24] In 2013 the BBC did a special investigation, Sue Lloyd-Roberts' "Demanding justice for women and children abused by Irish nuns."[25] The Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, and Sisters of Charity, have ignored requests by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the UN Committee Against Torture to contribute to the compensation fund for victims including 600 still alive in March 2014.[26]

The Magdalene Sisters, a 2002 film by Peter Mullan, is based on historical facts about four young women incarcerated in a Magdalene Laundry in Ireland from 1964 to 1968

Since 2011 a monument has been erected in Ennis, County Clare 'in appreciation' of the Sisters of Mercy who had an industrial school and a Magdalene laundry in the town. In 2015 Ennis municipal council decided to honour the same order by renaming a road in honour of the Sisters of Mercy for their compassionate service to vulnerable women and children . The road runs through the site of the former industrial school and laundry. There are conflicting viewpoints on the appropriateness of these symbolic representations in Ennis.


In Sweden, the first Magdalene asylum (Magdalenahem) was founded in Stockholm by the philanthropist Emilie Elmblad in 1852, and around the year 1900, there were eight asylums in Sweden, of which half were managed by the Salvation Army.[27]

The purpose of the Magdalene asylum in Sweden was to educate former female prostitutes in a different profession, to make it possible for them to support themselves by some other means than prostitution when they left the asylum. In practice, they were trained in domestic occupations in the asylums, and the goal of the asylums were to acquire employment as domestic servants for them in private homes, preferably with religious employers.[28] As the asylums was normally managed by religious women philanthropists such as Elsa Borg, the goal was not only to provide them with employment but also to make them religious, as this was considered to prevent them from returning to prostitution.[29] The asylums provided the clients with factory work only if the first choice of being a domestic in a private religious home failed, and employment in a public establishment, such as a hotel or a restaurant, was the last choice, as such work was considered to be a great risk from reentering prostitution.[30]

This was in line with several other common private charitable establishments especially in Stockholm, which provided poor women in the cities with shelter and employment (normally as domestics), to prevent them from becoming prostitutes.

The asylums were charity institutions and founded in great part by the work of the women in domestic training there. Initially, women were paid for their work, but this was abandoned when it was thought that it made women less inclined to follow rules.[31] In Sweden, the majority of the inmates of the Magdalena asylums had themselves voluntarily committed, but there were cases known when a woman was committed by her family or by the authorities.[32]

The Magdalena Asylum in Stockholm was closed in 1895.

United States[edit]

Asylum records show that in the early history of the Magdalene movement many women entered and left the institutions of their own accord, sometimes repeatedly. Lu Ann De Cunzo wrote in her book, Reform, Respite, Ritual: An Archaeology of Institutions; The Magdalene Society of Philadelphia, 1800–1850,[33] that the women in Philadelphia's asylum "sought a refuge and a respite from disease, the prison or almshouse, unhappy family situations, abusive men, and dire economic circumstances." In its early years, the Magdalen Society Asylum functioned as a refuge for prostitutes. Most of these stayed only a few days or a few weeks, just long enough to get reclothed and recuperated. Attempts at rehabilitation met with little success. In 1877, the asylum was changed into a home for wayward girls, with a rule requiring a stay for twelve months. As the Magdalen Society Asylum became more selective, relaxed its emphasis on personal guilt and salvation, and standardized in some respects the treatment of the inmates, its rate of failure diminished.[34]

The Penitent Females' Refuge Society of Boston was incorporated in 1823.[35]

New York's Magdalen Society was established in 1830 with the purpose of rescuing women from lives of prostitution and vice, sometimes kidnapping them from brothels. In 1907 a new home was established in the Inwood section of Manhattan. This was the second time the Society found it necessary to move to a larger facility. Many of the young women who passed through the doors of the Inwood institution had worked the taverns, brothels, and alleyways of lower Manhattan before being "rescued" by the Society. Girls were generally committed for a period of three years. Through the years, several girls died or were injured climbing out of windows in failed escape attempts. In 1917, the Magdalen Benevolent Society changed its name to Inwood House. In the early 1920s, bichloride of mercury was commonly used to treat new arrivals for venereal disease, resulting in a number of cases of mercury poisoning. The property was later sold and the agency relocated. Inwood House continues to operate, with its main focus on teen pregnancy.[36]

The president of the Catholic League, a U.S. advocacy group, published a statement titled "Myths of the Magdalene Laundries" in July 2013, which defends the laundries and attacks inmates and whistleblowers.[37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c ^ Finnegan 8
  3. ^ a b ^ Smith xv
  4. ^ "Feng, Violet. "The Magdalene Laundry", Sixty Minutes, CBS, August 8, 2003". 8 August 2003.
  5. ^ "Magdalen Hospital for the Reception of Penitent Prostitutes". Retrieved 18 February 2013.
  6. ^ "Bad girls do the best sheets", ABC Radio, 9 April 2001
  7. ^ a b Franklin, James. "Convent slave laundries? Magdalen Asylums in Australia", Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society 34 (2013), 70–90
  8. ^ Taylor, H., "The Magdalen refuge at Tempe", Sydney Morning Herald, 20 January 1890
  9. ^ a b C. Kovesi, C., Pitch Your Tents on Distant Shores: A History of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand and Tahiti, Playwright Publishing, Caringbah, 2006, 2nd ed, 2010
  10. ^ Williamson, N. "Laundry maids or ladies? Life in the Industrial and Reformatory School for Girls in NSW", Part II, 1887 to 1910, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 68 (1983), pp.312–324
  11. ^ "They get no pay but are mostly contented", Sun-Herald, 12 September 1954
  12. ^ Currier, Charles Warren. "Sisters of Mercy, of Montreal", History of Religious Orders, P. Murphy, 1898
  13. ^ Durocher, Eric. "Midwife of Mercy", Columbia, January 1, 2015
  14. ^ "Congregation of the Sisters of Misericorde". Catholic Encyclopedia.
  15. ^ Martel, Marcel. Canada the Good: A Short History of Vice since 1500, Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press, 2014 ISBN 9781554589487
  16. ^ a b McCarthy, Rebecca Lea. Origins of the Magdalene Laundries: An Analytical History, McFarland, 2010. ISBN 9780786455805
  17. ^ "Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries", Chap.3, February 6, 2013
  18. ^ Tomalin, Claire (20 December 2008). "The house that Charles built". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 December 2017.
  19. ^ Alison Roberts (2003). "The Magdalene Laundry".
  20. ^ Garth Toyntanen (2008). Institutionalised. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-9558501-0-3.
  21. ^ "UN calls for Magdalene laundries investigation, demands Vatican turn over child abusers to police". RTE News. 5 February 2014.
  22. ^ "Investigate Magdalen Abuses: UN", Irish Examiner, June 7, 2011
  23. ^ Niall O Sullivan (2 August 2013). "Magdalene compensation snub is 'rejection of Laundry women'". Irish Post.
  24. ^ Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries.
  25. ^ "Demanding justice for women and children abused by Irish nuns" BBC Magazine, 23 September 2013.
  26. ^ Ireland's Forced Labour Survivors. BBC Assignment. 18 October 2014.
  27. ^ Svanström, Yvonne, Offentliga kvinnor: prostitution i Sverige 1812-1918 [Public Women: Prostitution in Sweden 1812-1918], Ordfront, Stockholm, 2006 (Swedish)
  28. ^ Svanström, Yvonne, Offentliga kvinnor: prostitution i Sverige 1812-1918 [Public Women: Prostitution in Sweden 1812-1918], Ordfront, Stockholm, 2006 (Swedish)
  29. ^ Svanström, Yvonne, Offentliga kvinnor: prostitution i Sverige 1812-1918 [Public Women: Prostitution in Sweden 1812-1918], Ordfront, Stockholm, 2006 (Swedish)
  30. ^ Svanström, Yvonne, Offentliga kvinnor: prostitution i Sverige 1812-1918 [Public Women: Prostitution in Sweden 1812-1918], Ordfront, Stockholm, 2006 (Swedish)
  31. ^ Svanström, Yvonne, Offentliga kvinnor: prostitution i Sverige 1812-1918 [Public Women: Prostitution in Sweden 1812-1918], Ordfront, Stockholm, 2006 (Swedish)
  32. ^ Svanström, Yvonne, Offentliga kvinnor: prostitution i Sverige 1812-1918 [Public Women: Prostitution in Sweden 1812-1918], Ordfront, Stockholm, 2006 (Swedish)
  33. ^ published in Historical Archeology, the journal of the Society for Historical Archaeology
  34. ^ Ruggles, Stephen. "Fallen Women: The Inmates Of The Magdalens Society Asylum Of Philadelphia, 1836–1908", Journal of Social History
  35. ^ The Penitent Females' Refuge and Bethesda Societies ... Embracing Their Object, Act of Incorporation, Constitution, and Rules and Regulations; with Extracts from Reports,&c, Boston, 1859.
  36. ^ "Thompson, Cole. "Inwood's Old Magdalen Asylum", My Inwood".
  37. ^ Bill Donohue (July 15, 2013). "Myths of the Magdelene Laundries". Catholic League For Religious And Civil Rights. Retrieved 27 July 2014.


Further reading[edit]

  • Ferriter, Diarmaid (2005). The transformation of Ireland, 1900–2000. Profile Books. ISBN 978-1-86197-443-3.
  • Parrot, Andrea; Nina Cummings (2006). Forsaken females: the global brutalization of women. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0742545786.
  • Raftery, Mary; Eoin O'Sullivan (1999). Suffer the little children: the inside story of Ireland's industrial schools. Dublin: New Island. ISBN 1-874597-83-9.
  • Sixsmith, Martin (2009). The lost child of Philomena Lee: a mother, her son and a fifty-year search. London: Macmillan. ISBN 9780230744271. OCLC 373479096. The lost child of Philomena Lee at Google Books (another edition). It formed the basis for the 2013 film Philomena.
  • Sonnelitter, Karen (2016). Charity movements in eighteenth-century Ireland: philanthropy and improvement. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer. ISBN 978-1-78327-068-2..
  • Gerard P. Montague; Helena Kelleher Kahn. Magdalene laundries.
  • O'Sullivan, Eoin; Ian O'Donnell (2012). Coercive confinement in Ireland (1st ed.). Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • "The Waterford Memories Project". Retrieved 21 November 2017.

External links[edit]